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Congress Guarantees Veterans' Funeral Honors

By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Dec. 20, 1999 – As America bids farewell to the veterans of World War II, Congress has taken steps to ensure these patriotic GIs receive their ceremonial due.

By law, as of Jan. 1, all eligible veterans will be entitled to military funeral honors signifying America's gratitude for their honorable service. Upon request, two service members will fold and present the American flag to surviving family members, and a bugler will sound "Taps." If a bugler is not available, a high-quality CD will be used.

At least one member of the funeral detail will be from the deceased veteran's parent military service. The other may be from the same service or another military service. Other authorized providers, such as members of a veteran's organization, may be used to augment the military detail. No particular rank is specified in the law, but the services by tradition have ensured the person presenting the flag to the family is at least the grade of the deceased veteran.

"We believe this is a very important, meaningful and moving ceremony. It's an appropriate tribute for all of our veterans," said Gail McGinn, principal director to the deputy assistant secretary of defense for Personnel Support, Families and Education. "People say the finality of 'Taps' and the presentation of the flag provide an emotional closure. The ceremony honoring the deceased veteran can be seen as an affirmation of the person's life, as well as an expression of the nation's gratitude."

Veterans' families have had a hard time obtaining funeral honors due to the growing number of requests and to concurrent military force reductions, McGinn said.

One quarter of the nation's 26 million veterans alive today are over age 65. Department of Veterans Affairs officials project the rate of veterans' deaths will rise through 2008 to about 620,000 per year, up from 456,000 deaths in 1989 and 537,000 in 1997.

At the same time requests for funeral details have risen, the active force, since 1989, has fallen from 2.1 million to 1.4 million, with about a third stationed overseas or deployed on contingency operations. Similarly, the reserve components have shrunk from 1.2 million to 900,000 since 1989.

In addition, 77 U.S. installations have closed since 1989, and 20 more will close by 2001. In many cases, funeral details now have to travel greater distances to provide support. McGinn's office examined 9,800 requests for funeral honors received from June 1 to Sept. 30 this year and found 23 percent could not be fully supported and 2 percent received no support.

While many veterans think of military funeral honors as a right, the honors grew from custom, not DoD policy. Until the new law, nothing actually said the honors were a mandatory function, McGinn said. Congress responded to public concerns by writing a provision into the fiscal 2000 Defense Authorization Act requiring the military to perform at least a basic level of funeral honors upon request for all eligible veterans.

By law, veterans are now eligible for military funeral honors if they served in the active military and were discharged under other than dishonorable conditions, or if they were a member or former member of the Selective Reserve. Veterans are ineligible if they are convicted of federal or state capital offenses and sentenced to life imprisonment without parole or receive the death penalty.

McGinn said military teams conducted 38,000 funeral honor ceremonies in 1998; 1999 statistics are not yet available. Requests in 2000 are expected to continue rising as the ranks of America's 16.1 million World War II veterans wither.

"In developing the policy, we realized the number of requests for military funeral honors was going to increase," McGinn said, "The veterans of World War II are passing away -- we're anticipating that there will be about 1,500 deaths a day."

The Department of Veterans Affairs estimates about 572,000 veterans will die in 2000. DoD anticipates family requests for funeral honors each year eventually will climb to at least 45 percent of the eligible veterans -- in 2000, that would be about 257,000 requests, McGinn said.

"Given the way we think the mission is going to expand, what we've tried to do is provide our veterans a dignified, professional ceremony and a proper farewell within the resources available," she said. "This is a total force mission, so we will rely on both the active and the reserve components. Reservists who participate will receive a $50 stipend and a point toward their retirement. They may accumulate retirement points for funeral honors duty beyond the annual cap."

DoD's new policy calls for funeral directors, rather than families, to contact the military. Military funeral honors must be requested -- they aren't provided automatically, McGinn noted.

"The funeral director would probably ask the family whether the deceased was a veteran and then discuss the option for funeral honors," she said. In this, defense officials are taking steps to ensure families and funeral directors know how to request military honors and what the ceremony will include.

McGinn said about 24,000 funeral directors are in line to receive DoD kits containing a directory of regional funeral honors coordinators and brochures with frequently asked questions, instructions on the proper folding of the flag and the sequence of the ceremony. The kit also will include a compact disc of "Taps" professionally recorded during 1999 Memorial Day services at Arlington (Va.) National Cemetery.

"A live bugler is always the first choice, but finding one is always a problem," McGinn said. "There are only 500 buglers in the whole Department of Defense and they're not strategically located across the country," she added.

DoD officials also are sending the "Taps" CDs to veterans service organizations and to military units that will provide funeral honors. In lieu of a military bugler or the CD, families may choose to seek a professional or volunteer musician to trumpet the poignant "Taps" farewell, McGinn said.

"The bugler is supposed to be out of sight, as is the audio equipment if the CD is used," she noted.

DoD plans to issue training videotapes starting early next year to units that will conduct honors ceremonies. The tapes will set a DoD standard in terms of how the basic ceremony is conducted.

McGinn said she and other DoD officials are often asked whether the basic ceremony is all any veteran can expect. She answers, "not necessarily."

"The services have traditions for the provision of military funeral honors," she said. "A member who dies while on active duty receives a higher level of support in military funeral honors. The same is true of veterans who are war heroes, such as Medal of Honor recipients.

"The services, based on their traditions, may render additional elements of military funeral honors," McGinn said. "Veterans organizations that currently provide military funeral honors can work with us in accordance with the law to provide other parts of an honors ceremony such as a firing party."

A DoD Web site explaining the funeral honors process is scheduled to go online Jan. 1 at www.militaryfuneralhonors.osd.mil. A toll free number, 1-877-MIL-HONR, also will be available Jan. 1 for funeral directors to coordinate ceremonies.

"We believe it is important to demonstrate the country's gratitude to those who, in times of war and peace, have faithfully defended our country," McGinn said. "We want the Department's Military Funeral Honors Program to do that for our veterans and their families."

(Paul Stone contributed to this story.)

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